For those who believe real country music has fled Nashville, the recent CMA Awards would do little to ease your notion. Bombast, smoke, lasers and lots of the arena rock are the anti-thesis of steel-soaked, fiddle-laced songs built on melody, submerged in big emotions and turned with hooks that can’t be forgotten.
But for the true believers and in-the-knowers, a handful of insiders and old school players have conjured 45 RPM, a last Wednesday of every month celebration of classic country held at longtime hole in the wall Douglas Corner.
Packed to the gills, this month’s meeting of the faithful was to celebrate brand new Hall of Fame inductee Connie Smith. Still picture pretty, her classic country songs “If It Ain’t Love,” “Nobody But A Fool” and of course “Once A Day” made AM radio in the ‘70s and ‘80s great -- and Mike Johnson, Joannie Keller, Jimmy Nelton, Mark Johnson, Gregg Galbraith, Rob Hajacos and Stan Saxton are country to the core, and it pours off that stage.
After romping through Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’,” with celebratory lilt, the little band that could went with jukebox gusto through Stonewall Jackson/Gene Watson’s “Should I Come Home,” Johnny Paycheck’s “A-11” and Mel Street’s “Borrowed Angel,” they kicked the Connie Smith tribute off with Joanie Keller’s poured molasses alto over “Then & Only Then.” While it sounds unlike anything on country radio right now, the timeless stops you in your tracks.
To up the ante, the iconic songwriter Dallas Frazier gets up to sing one of his 71 songs that Smith has recorded. “Ain’t Had No Lovin’” is supple and sensuous, the kind of song that makes you think of bad things you want more of in ways you can’t really say.
Simple., direct, yet so much more than’s on the surface, as well as a straightforward plain spoken confession. The gift of great country is the way it can walk both lines – and share more than any genre except maybe hardcore rap. But this poetry and gentility in even the most wide open moments.
Marla Cannon Goodman, who wrote Lee Ann Womack’s breakout “The Fool,” went sweet with “Hearts Like Our’s,” while Monty Holmes gave up the clear-headed “If This Ain’t Love (Lets Leave It Alone)” with verve of someone smart enough to dodge a bullet and a heartache.
Jodi Smith proved apples don’t fall far from the tree. With an elegance, she closed out the first set with “Where Is My Castle,” doing her mama proud and bringing down a house that included heavy hitter producers Garth Fundis (Keith Whitley, Trisha Yearwood), Doug Johnson (Doug Stone, John Michael Montgomery’s breakout work) and Buddy Cannon (Willie Nelson, Kenny Chesney), as well as songwriter/plugger/historian Dale Dotson, Gene Watson manager Sara Brosemer, ASCAP’s Robert Filhart, designer Manuel and Universal Music Publishing/event catalyst Cyndi Foreman.
Ripe with the complexities of how life felt, second setter Laney Hicks came to the stage and said of Smith’s impact, “The pain in her voice was the way I felt… and my Dad told me that was the only singer I’d ever need to listen to.” With that heartfelt confession, Hicks offered a full-immersion “Run Away Little Tears,” followed by Smith herself coming up for the classic “A Heart Like You” and the more recent vintage “I’m Not Blue.”
Connie Smith today has a voice and a nuance to her delivery that inspired Merle Haggard to fly across country just to induct her into the Hall of Fame. When that voice, which has a light golden tone to its sheen, is inside a song, it becomes the essence of hope or hurt, healing or resolve.
Even the wildly talented Tanya Tucker, who followed Smith, couldn’t graze Smith’s performance, Still with her lived-in rasp and ability to put a gauntlet to any song, Tucker’s take on hope beyond reason “I Never Stopped Loving You” was a witness to endurance and happy endings. Clearly enjoying the moment, the song and performing for Smith, Tucker went for it – and delivered!
It is the best singers who bring out the best in the great ones. Connie Smith does that – be it inspiring Kris Kristofferson to write “Why Me, Lord?” after taking him to church, Marty Stuart to push his own (and her) musical boundaries or an entire roomful of people who believe in the power of real country to maybe dig a little deeper as they work in the coal mine of commercial music.
Just when the roomful of folks were sure it couldn’t be any better, Johnson announced that “a little bitty thing snuck in here, or she might’ve been under a table somewhere.” Introducing multiple IBMA Entertainer of the Year Rhonda Vincent, the petite blond demurred that she always wants to sing this song, but tonight…
before launching into the signature “Once A Day.”
While Smith’s original is all emotion and hanging on, Vincent found the silken undercarriage of the song. In her hands, she transformed what we know into a prayer of transformation, making the song her own – and creating a place where pain and longing has a beauty of its own.
Not that the good men – and woman – of 45 RPM would stop there. The crew would romp for another hour, playing instrumentals, Merle Haggard, Jimmy Dickens and Conway Twitty as well as luring Marty Stuart to the stage. It was a celebration, not just of Smith, but what country music can be.
Maybe network television, focus groups and wal-Mart don’t care, but every last Wednesday of the month, there’s a whole lot of faithful burning the holy smoke – and having a damn fine doing it. The real stuff, unburnished and straight up: Douglas Corner with 45 RPM is a pretty great way to go.